The Thrust/Three-Quarter Problem
Theater, of course, is not engineering; terminology tends to be a little fuzzy. Sometimes we learn it one way, sometimes we learn it another way. I’m going to lay out my terminology for the difference between a thrust stage and a three-quarter round stage, and we’ll see if it makes sense; if not, maybe we can come up with some better identifiers. This is also maybe of interest to reviewers (like Moff, for instance, who might be less familiar with the particular intricacies of staging), so apologies if its more information than required.
Anyway, Mark Cofta has criticized a number of local directors for not fully embracing the kind of stage that they have, and I think that he’s absolutely right on the mark with that one — but moreover, I think that the problem that he’s seeing is directly related to the confusion over the thrust/three-quarter problem.
So, here it is:
A thrust stage is a particular modification to a proscenium stage, in which the audience arrangement remains largely in tact, but the stage has a piece that now thrusts into their space. This space is used usually for special moments (two people kiss, someone has a solo, maybe there’s a fight), but the bulk of the playing space remains back on the proscenium. Because of this, the audience usually maintains the same relationship to the stage: they are pointed forward at the proscenium; when something happens on the thrust, the people on the side have to turn their heads to look.
In a three-quarter round space, the bulk of the playing space is actually in the middle of the audience, and so all of the chairs are pointed inwards at it. There is sometimes a small back-lay — like a very tiny proscenium space, in which you can do some things on — but for the most part all the action occurs here in the middle.
The problem with directing in a three-quarter space (and it’s related round-space and alley-space arrangements — anything with crossing sightlines) is when directors mistake it for a thrust space.
Basically, when you work in a thrust space (and your audience is all pointed in the same direction, at the stage) you can block with everyone pointed directly back out — this is classic proscenium staging. When you direct in a three-quarter round space, you can’t work the same way at all: you can’t have static arrangements, you can’t arrange the stage according to pleasing tableaus, and you must have a roughly equal amount of staging playing out to the sides as you do to the front.
This is because, obviously, when the audience is all pointed inwards, actors start getting in each other’s way. In order to compensate for this, you’ve got to keep everyone moving around — the staging looks more like dynamic movements than it looks like composed pictures. Now, usually if the director keeps people moving, plays along the diagonals, and keeps the action “open” (that is, periodically pointing out to the people at the sides), you don’t really miss anything: sure, actors stand in front of each other, or cross in front of each other, but it’s only for a few seconds, so it doesn’t matter. This is especially true in places where three-quarters are best used: small, intimate houses (where a moment’s eclipse by another actor is much less noticeable) where the advantages of a three-quarter round space (namely, that it creates a feeling of closeness to the action on stage that is more profound than even a thrust can deliver) are at their peak.
When, as Mark points out, directors don’t embrace their audience arrangement, usually what you’re seeing is a three-quarter space being treated as a thrust space: all of the action is blocked directly forward, and the only way you’re going to get a good view of the show is if you sit in the center, rather than on one of the sides.